Are your staff scared of you? (And why it may be costing you a fortune)

Don't assume that being friendly makes you approachable, say researchers Megan Reitz and John Higgins.

by Megan Reitz and John Higgins
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2019

Picture the scene. A frustrated CEO exclaims: "My team just won’t speak up! They aren’t coming up with ideas. They’re just not stepping up." Meanwhile the team whisper that the last time someone spoke up they were side-lined, ignored, publicly humiliated or even left the company.

Getting people to speak their mind is not simply about instilling courage into those you want to hear more from. It is about listening up – skilfully inviting others to speak and ensuring the environment is psychologically safe enough to do so.

Our recent research suggests that one in four junior employees expect they would be punished if they spoke up about a problem in their workplace. This means problems go unaddressed, unhappy customers go elsewhere and, in some cases, safety is put on the line.

But if you’re now thinking this doesn’t apply to you, because you are approachable and truly care about hearing others’ views, think again.

You are likely to be scary to some others because of the titles and labels that are put on you. We label one another all the time: ‘Manager’, ‘finance’, ‘tall’, ‘high potential’, ‘confident’. These labels convey differing levels of status and authority depending on the context you are in and often, the label put on you is out of your control.

We also know from our research that as you get more senior you become more likely to believe that others are speaking freely to you. If labels are applied to us that convey higher status, over time, we are more likely to find it easier to speak up and we expect positive consequences. We forget others’ experiences are different.

Like the top tier of the banking industry just before the crash, we’re the last to know that our business performance is built on sand because we’re the only ones believing the official performance reports.

So, what can you do?

Firstly, remember that even if you don’t feel particularly powerful, others may think you are, and it will affect what they say to you. As a manager, you need your team to tell you if something is going on that shouldn’t be and you need to hear ideas for how to do things better. Don’t assume this happens automatically – assume the opposite.

Secondly, consider whether you are sending more ‘speak up’ than ‘shut up’ signals. A frown when you are thinking, a blank expression in a meeting, a quick check of the phone and even an insistence on ‘don’t come with problems, come with solutions’ can all be interpreted as ‘shut up’ signals.

The latter one can be particularly costly, with problems hidden until it’s too late. Find someone who can give you honest feedback about your signals and let others know if you have habits open to misinterpretation.

Thirdly, what reaction do you have when others challenge you or tell you something you don’t want to hear? You may respond well nine times out of 10, but if on the tenth you respond badly, that will be the occasion that everyone will gossip about – and it will silence your team. You can’t be perfect, and we all have bad days, so if you have responded badly, apologise and explain.

Finally, ask better questions. Don’t finish your presentation and turn to your team asking for ‘thoughts’ or ‘feedback’ and expect fully considered, open responses. Rather, ask, ‘if you were one of our critical customers, what would you think of that presentation?’ or ‘if there was one thing that would improve these ideas further, what would it be?’ Our research overwhelmingly points to organisations being full of good ideas, if only we took the time to listen.

That’s why if you want a ‘speak up’ culture, and you’d be a strange manager not to want one, you have to consider your own listening habits. Even if you are lovely and approachable, you may still have to work hard in order to find out what your team really think. Sometimes it really is you, not them.

Megan Reitz is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult Ashridge International Business School. John Higgins is a research fellow at Gameshift, a coach and consultant. They are authors of Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, (Pearson, £14.99).

Image credit: George Desipris/Pexels

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